Excerpted from “The Essence of Filial Piety” by Dharma Master Cheng Yen
The Long Agama Sutra says, “To guard one’s mind, being respectful and filial to one’s parents is of foremost importance. If everyone can do this, then the young will respect their seniors and there will be harmony among family members. This Dharma should not be violated.” The Dharma has existed through eons of time and is true at all times and in all places. To abide by the wonderful Dharma and guard our inner kindness, we should first be filial to our parents and respect our teachers. By doing so, there will be harmony among family members and order in interpersonal relationships. We will not deviate from true principles and will be steadfast in our spiritual cultivation.
Being grateful to our parents is the foundation of being a decent person. We exist because of our parents. Our mothers suffered a great deal during pregnancy and while giving birth, much like the Earth having to endure much ordeal as seedlings sprout from the ground.
Several decades ago, we planted rice, peanuts, and soy beans around the Jing Si Abode. I still remember the first time I grew peanuts. The day after I planted the seeds, I went to check on them. Nothing had happened. On the second day, I found that the ground was starting to break. On the third day, seedlings pierced through the ground. On the fourth day, two tiny leaves unfurled from each seedling.
It is not easy for the Earth to nurture all living things. In order to grow such small plants as peanuts, the land has to withstand human activities such as plowing and weeding. When seedlings sprout, they stretch and break open the earth.
Our mothers are just like the Earth. Mothers withstand all kinds of discomfort during pregnancy and bear excruciating pain when giving birth, then they toil and worry about their children, no matter how old their children get.
Not only mothers have to go through hardship, fathers also work hard every day to support their families and to give them a peaceful and happy life Therefore it is fitting and proper that we take care of our parents. Parents are living buddhas in our homes. To respect and be filial to them is to sow a great field of blessings. On the other hand, if we are not filial to our parents despite their tremendous grace to us, we are failures even if we are wealthy, famous or successful in our careers.
Filial piety is the root of the family. A family that lacks filial piety is like a tree without roots – the family cannot prosper just as the tree cannot flourish. A family with virtue and love as its legacy will always enjoy blessings and merits.
How do we practice filial piety? Confucius said that no matter how many material goods we provide our parents with, if we are insincere, disobedient, or disrespectful, we are treating them just like animals. Filial piety is inseparable from respect. Without respect, there is no filial piety. Moreover, true filial piety must go beyond the material into the spiritual. We must guide our parents to do good deeds and help transform their perspectives in seeing the world—such is true filial piety.
When it comes to abiding by ethics and learning to be a decent person, filial piety is of foremost importance. We must be filial to our parents and repay the gift of life that they gave us. We must also respect our teachers and seniors and repay their kindness in nurturing our wisdom-life. Our life is beautiful when we can cherish and respect ourselves and others. To do that, we need guidance and education. Therefore, we must be grateful to our teachers for teaching us vocational skills as well as building our characters, so that we understand righteousness to discern right from wrong.
Some say a mother’s heart is like pincushion and her child is just like a needle. When we have finished sewing, we stick the needle into the pincushion. When we want to use it we pull it out, and we stick it back in when we no longer need it. Although full of holes, the pincushion still accommodates the needle without fail. Does the needle know that the pincushion is its home? As human beings, we should know that filial piety is the home of virtue because it is the foundation of all virtuous deeds. A person with filial piety appears beautiful; a person who violates filial piety appears ugly. When we practice filial piety and do good deeds in a timely manner, our sincerity will bring blessings to the world and free it from disasters.
According to the Buddhist sutras, all Buddhas attained Buddhahood in the human realm. We must first perfect ourselves as human beings before we are able to attain Buddhahood. Filial piety is to serve our parents well and, on a grander scale, to serve the world well. When we do good deeds for society, have correct values, and walk on the right path, we will eventually reach the ultimate Truth.